François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture was the most famous leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born as the eldest son of an educated slave in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, by the end of his life he was known for his intellect and political acumen when conducting anti-slavery and pro-independence campaigns.
Louverture was also known for his changing alliances, variously fighting against the French, then for them, and then finally against them again for the cause of Haitian independence during the French Revolution.
Though the details of his political life are well known, lesser-known information about his personal life paints a portrait of a man who was intensely religious, abstemious and learned.
Here are 10 facts about the ‘Father of Haiti’, Toussaint Louverture.
1. He was of royal heritage
Toussaint is thought to have been born into slavery on the plantation of Bréda at Haut de Cap in Saint-Domingue in the early 1740s. Though his birth date is unknown, it’s likely that he was born on All Saints’ Day on 1 November, since the name Toussaint translates to ‘all saint’.
Toussaint’s father was Gaou Guinou, an African prince who was captured by slavers. And Guinou was the son of King Arrada, also known as Great Arrada, who was the king of what is now Benin.
2. Toussaint was educated
In spite of being enslaved, Toussaint received an education. His father had also been educated. Through Jesuit contacts, he acquired some knowledge of French, though he wrote and spoke it poorly, and also had some knowledge of Latin. Instead, he mainly spoke Haitian Creole and an African tribal language. He was also educated by his godfather Pierre Baptiste, a free man who lived and worked on the Bréda plantation.
Records show that Toussaint was highly intelligent and was familiar with the works of Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who had lived as a slave. Toussaint’s later speeches and work shows that he also knew of Machiavelli, and enjoyed reading about Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. He also had some knowledge of medicinal plants and Jesuit medicine.
3. He was born with a different name
Toussaint added ‘Louverture’ to his name later in life. Though the significance of the name is unknown, its meaning in French, ‘opening’, may have referred to his tactical ability as a military commander.
4. He had 16 children
Toussaint married Suzanne Simone Baptiste, who was likely his cousin, in 1782. It is thought that he had 16 children by multiple women, though he outlived all but 5. His eldest son was adopted, and we know that two of his legitimate children with Suzanne were called Isaac and Saint-Jean.
5. He had escalating responsibilities on the plantation
Toussaint seems to have had an important role on the Bréda plantation until the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution. He was a salaried employee who contributed to the daily running of the plantation and was initially responsible for livestock, before becoming coachman to the overseer. Later, he became a slave driver who was charged with organising the workforce.
6. He became a free man
The circumstances regarding Toussaint’s manumission are unclear, and until 1938 it was thought that he had been enslaved until the start of the revolution. However, a marriage certificate dated to 1777 shows that he was freed in 1776 aged 33. This development was corroborated by a letter from 1797, in which Toussaint stated that he had been free for 20 years.
As a free man, Toussaint began to accumulate wealth and property. He rented a small coffee plantation that was worked by a dozen or so of his own slaves. By the start of the revolution, he had made a reasonable fortune.
One of the most famous quotes attributed to him is, ‘I was born a slave, but nature gave me the soul of a free man.’
7. He was strictly Catholic
During his life, Toussaint remained strictly Roman Catholic and strongly condemned Voodoo, even though it was widely practiced on the Bréda plantation. This religious outlook was reflected in later political decisions.
When consolidating his power after the War of the Knives in 1801, Toussaint decreed a new constitution which established Catholicism as the official religion. As the official ruler of Saint-Domingue, he actively discouraged Voodoo.
Historians have also suggested that he was a highly-ranked Freemason because he used a Masonic symbol in his signature. This is surprising, since there was a papal ban on Catholics holding memberships in Masonic organisations from 1738 onwards. Toussaint was also a vegetarian and generally refrained from over-indulgence or dressing extravagantly.
8. Toussaint created Haiti’s first constitution
As Governor-General, Toussaint oversaw the creation and implementation of Haiti’s first constitution. In it, he was named ‘Governor for Life’ and had the right to choose the next governor, despite the fact that future governors had a 5-year term limit.
The constitution declared people of all races officially socially equal, and everyone was declared a French citizen from birth to death. The only religion which could be practiced publicly was Catholicism, and nobody was allowed a divorce.
Finally, nothing which was already produced on the island was allowed to be imported.
9. He helped Haiti become the first colony in the world to free itself from European rule
On top of helping slaves in Haiti win their independence, which was a world-first, Toussaint’s actions helped Haiti become the first colony in the world to free itself from European rule.
Soon after Toussaint’s arrest, Napoleon announced his intention to reintroduce slavery in Haiti, which led to a new revolt against French rule. With the help of the British, rebels scored a major victory against the French force, who eventually surrendered in 1803. In 1804, General Dessalines assumed dictatorial power, and Haiti became the second independent nation in the Americas and the first independent Caribbean state.
Independence came at a crippling cost, however. The nation had to pay reparations to France, which demanded compensation for former slave owners. The ‘independence debt’ was not paid off until 1947, and there have been recent calls for France to repay the money.
10. He died in the French Alps
After a final French invasion, Toussaint agreed to lay down his arms if the French promised not to restore slavery in Haiti. He then retired in honour to a plantation.
However, a few weeks later, he was invited to a parley by French general Baptiste Brunet under false pretences. He was suspected of plotting an uprising, so was arrested at Brunet’s home and sent to Fort-de-Joux in the French Jura Mountains.
He was confined, regularly tortured and interrogated, and died in April 1803, possibly due to exhaustion, malnutrition, apoplexy, pneumonia and tuberculosis.